The quesabirria consists of two meat, cheese and onion tacos with a side on consome.

It almost goes without saying in Isla Vista that Freebirds is perceived to be the uncontested king of Mexican food, and to challenge that notion often brings about a frenzy of crazed looks and a few “that’s a red flag” expressions aimed your way. However, I would like to bring to the forefront another Mexican eatery in I.V. that definitely makes a compelling challenge for the throne. Located toward the end of Pardall Road, just left of new restaurant Giovanni’s Pizza, lies Zocalo, hidden gem of I.V. that has gone untasted and unreviewed for too long by On the Menu. My craving for Mexican food and my curiosity to try something new propelled me to give this restaurant a try. Needless to say, it did not disappoint. 

As I pulled up to Zocalo on my bike just as night was beginning to set in, I got a positive first impression of the restaurant just by looking through the window at the vibrant, colorful lights illuminating in the store. Named after Mexico City’s main central commercial square with entertainment, according to the restaurant’s website, the founders — a UC Santa Barbara student’s family — hoped that the eatery would be a place “for team meetings, catching up with friends, grabbing a coffee, and some delicious food.” The atmosphere in Zocalo strongly reflects the founders’ desire for a communal atmosphere, with traditional multi-colored papel picado streamers decorating the right side of the store, the light-wood shelf on the left featuring small Latin-style dolls and a cute water container with a sombrero on top. Combined with the café style layout, the entire establishment invokes an amalgamation of positive feelings from any guest who enters. Thinking back, maybe this fun atmosphere was why I ended up spending way more than I intended to on my meal. I felt deeply compelled to try everything featured on the large, overhead television screens just above the register. Thank goodness a small sense of rationality remained present in the far recesses of my brain as I fought the urge to splurge on more delicious-sounding menu items and add them to my already sizable order. I ordered the quesabirria, arroz con leche (rice with milk) and the espresso flan.

The warm and strong meat and cheese smell emanating from my quesabirria takeout box was — to put it lightly — absolutely mouthwatering. The quesabirria consists of two perfectly crispy yet soft King Corn quesadillas that contain the pure meaty goodness of the birria (a stew of steak, cheese, onions and cilantro) and is served with a side of consommé (a clear, slightly spicy soup made from stock or broth) and a small assortment of vegetables. The consommé perfectly drew out the rich meat and cheese flavor from the dish and left me wanting more with each bite I took. I completely devoured the quesabirria within moments of having it placed in front of me, and so it should come as no surprise to any reader that I now consider myself a quesabirria fanatic and am therefore giving it a lofty 9/10 rating. Despite its $12.99 price point, which some might find steep, I believe the taste more than justifies the price.

For dessert, flan was up next. My mom and I have made flan several times using homemade recipes. Thus, I consider myself to be a good judge. I was especially excited to try the espresso flan that Zocalo has on their menu. What caught my eye about this flan specifically was the advertised espresso flavoring, which I had never heard of before. But I was a bit underwhelmed when I could only taste the espresso baked into the flan in a few bites, especially since it cost $4.95. While the flan still had the silky, smooth and semi-gelatinous texture that I know and love, the flavor aspect was lacking. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved the flan and would give it a high rating of 7.5/10; I’m super appreciative that there is a restaurant in I.V. that sells a slice of home to me, but I just think it doesn’t really live up to its advertised rich espresso flavor. I still gobbled up the dessert like a madman and highly implore those who want to try it to do so as the flan part won’t disappoint.

Despite already ordering a dessert, I just had to try the arroz con leche that was cleverly placed right at the checkout. At $3.99, what’s one more dessert, am I right? Despite having no knowledge of what a typical arroz con leche dessert is supposed to look like, I was still shocked that the dessert looked like the goopy oatmeal that I sometimes have for breakfast. However, the smell emanating from the dessert was another story entirely. The rich cinnamon combined with the minute yet light, refreshing milk wafting from the dessert immediately made my mouth start to water in anticipation. Taking my first few bites, it was hard to ignore the semi-random chunks of rice floating around in the otherwise more liquid dessert and, despite enjoying the taste to some degree — most likely because I was already stuffed from my previous food indulgences — I decided to call it a night, having only eaten about one-third of the delight. At this point, I was planning to rate it around a 6/10. However, after taking it home, I was surprised to discover that letting the dessert sit in the refrigerator overnight boosted the flavor and texture of all ingredients, especially the rice as it softened up significantly in the mixture over time, making the dessert all the more enjoyable. Maybe it’s just a late bloomer? After a night in the depths of my stuffed refrigerator, I would give the dessert a 7/10 rating and definitely recommend trying the dessert. 

Early the next morning, I ended up at Zocalo again to try their Mazapán (a Mexican almond candy) latte that piqued my interest on the menu board just outside the main entrance. The latte was decent and had a slight nutty flavor which I enjoyed. However, the drink was too sweet and creamy for my taste, so it’s a respectable 6/10 in my book.

The Mazapan latte is creamy with a sweet, nutty flavor.

All in all, I highly recommend Zocalo. By offering a diverse menu of Mexican food in all courses, it’s quickly becoming my new favorite restaurant in I.V. I absolutely will be returning to try more of their menu and to meet up with friends for a delicious dinner, dessert or coffee.

A version of this article appeared on p.8 of the March 7, 2024 version of the Daily Nexus.